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Ptichye Moloko

MT
In Russian fairy tales, when the beautiful princess wants to test the ardor and resourcefulness of her suitor, she sends him out into the wilderness to find and bring back the one fantastical luxury she doesn't have: bird's milk (ptichye moloko). Bird's milk doesn't, of course, exist. The phrase is used to describe some rare treasure that only exists in the imagination.

But in the 1970s, all that changed. First, the Red October factory made a candy called Ptichye Moloko. Vladimir Guralnik, the head of the confectionary shop at the Praga restaurant in Moscow, tried it and decided to recreate it as a cake. It took six months of experimentation before he and his assistants figured out a way of making the exquisitely light souffle that fills this unusual cake. The cake Ptichye Moloko -- light sponge cake filled with Guralnik's ethereal souffle and topped with chocolate glaze -- appeared in 1978 and, even at the price of 6 rubles and 30 kopeks (a considerable expense when salaries averaged 120 rubles a month), there were always lines outside the restaurant shop to buy it.

Guralnik began to work at the Praga restaurant when he was 16 years old, and now, 51 years later, he still heads Praga's confectionary shop. "I'm very proud of my cake," he said. "Parents used to say that their children had everything but bird's milk. And then, thanks to us, they could give their children bird's milk, too."

The cake, which was only sold in Moscow, became a cult treat for special parties. Although the Praga shop made 600 cakes a day, it still couldn't meet demand. People would join the line in front of the store, adding their name to a written list and getting a scrap of torn paper with the number of their place in line. Guralnik recalls walking out of the metro station and heading to the Praga one day, when someone tried to sell him a place in line to buy Ptichye Moloko. The numbered scrap of paper cost 3 rubles -- almost half the price of the cake itself.

The Praga's Ptichye Moloko now costs 240 rubles, and on most days you can just stroll in and buy one. But before New Year's, Praga was making 450 a day -- and just like in the old days, people stood in line in front of the shop for two or three hours.
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